A small group of protesters including neighbors Zhong-Ying Chen, center,… (Nikki Kahn/The Washington…)
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the density of the park’s deer population as 70 per “square acre.” The park has 70 deer per square mile. This version has been corrected.
The federal sharpshooters in Rock Creek Park are on the lookout for deer drawn to the corncob bait.
Wearing U.S. Department of Agriculture jackets and backed up by spotters, the shooters are equipped with night-vision goggles so they can distinguish a doe from a human interloper.
Some of the sharpshooters are positioned on the wooded hillsides, and others are on the back of flatbed trucks that creep through the muted stillness of the park, which is cordoned off to traffic. The idea is to aim downward so any errant bullet will sink into the earth. Even the ammunition has been carefully selected to disintegrate in the deer’s body.
Despite the many safety precautions described by National Park Service officials, some residents are continuing to protest the deer shoot, which started Wednesday and will be completed Saturday. Sixty to 70 deer are expected to be shot. After the carcasses are tested for disease, the venison will be donated to food pantries.
The Park Service says that what it euphemistically calls a deer “harvest” is needed to safeguard the health of the park, the herd, and the people who live nearby or use the park. With 70 deer per square mile, the park has about four times the density considered ideal.
But some residents and animal rights activists, who fought a losing court battle to stop the deer shoot, say slaying animals in a city park surrounded by densely packed neighborhoods is barbaric, particularly going into the Easter weekend. They have turned out to protest and established a Twitter account to collect signatures on a petition urging the Park Service to stop the harvest. One person wrote on @rockcreekdeer that the otherwise tranquil park is being turned into a “killing field.”
“It shows so little respect for the community to do this during Passover and Easter weekend, when everyone in Washington is leaving town,” said Carol Grunewald, a Chevy Chase resident who was the lead plaintiff in a U.S. District Court case. In a March 14 ruling, the judge reaffirmed the Park Service’s authority to kill the deer if it is in the park’s best interest.
The agency says the abundance of deer threatens the native plant species, endangering the food supply of other animals in the park. Park officials, citing safety concerns, did not allow reporters to observe the sharpshooters working in a stretch north of the National Zoo that is bounded by 16th Street and Oregon Avenue.
Some of the park’s neighbors are grateful that they will have fewer deer to contend with.
Roy Bowman, who lives in Chevy Chase half a mile from the park, has woken up to find as many as 10 deer at once munching their way through his back yard.
“They eat everything,” he said. “Don’t even think about tulips. They’ve eaten them down to the nub. They ate a little plant with red flowers that’s supposed to be deer resistent. It’s finished. They love it.”
Bowman said he also worries about his grandchildren, who live even closer to the park than he does, being bitten by a deer tick carrying Lyme disease.
“Deer are nice, graceful animals,” he said. “But there are too many of them. They carry disease. And you can’t control them by birth control. You have to cull them first. It’s unfortunate but necessary.”
Such sentiments have made urban deer hunting increasingly common in metropolitan areas across the country, particularly in developing exurbs that bump up against farmland where deer roam more freely.
In Missouri, which has about one deer for every four people residing there, the state licenses hunters for 88 managed shoots, including four in urban areas.
The St. Louis suburb of Town and Country hired sharpshooters to control the size of a deer population that has caused traffic collisions and ruined lawns. The town turned to shooting the deer after an attempt to capture does and give them birth control proved expensive and ineffective, said Joe Jerek, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Meanwhile, voters in Cape Girardeau, in southeastern Missouri, will decide next week whether to allow deer hunts with bows and arrows inside city limits.
The hunts almost always court controversy.
“There are people who wish there were more deer, and people who wish there were less,” said Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources in Illinois, which has urban deer hunts in Cook County, in suburban Chicago.
But few cities have parks as large as Rock Creek running through them, creating what the Park Service officials say is an out-of-control deer population in the middle of a big city.
The Park Service, which is advised by wildlife biologists and specialists educated in natural resources management, eschews words such as “shoot” and “hunt.”